Qabalah - Tree of Life
Qabalah Different Spellings
There are various spellings of Qabalah and, for the purposes of clarity one spelling, Qabalah, is used throught this article. In general you can assume that the various spellings beginning with a ‘K’ are Jewish, with a ‘C’ are Christian and with ‘Q’ are Hermetic. There are also many variations within these guidelines.
The Qabalah is an ancient set of Jewish teachings (the origins are uncertain but generally accepted to date from the 11th century or the 13th century) designed to illuminate the relationship between the Creator and this world including all its peoples. It is not part of the Jewish scriptures, rather a set of documents linked to them. The Qabalah is there to define the reason for existence and other ontological questions. In addition, it also gives various methods designed to aid the understanding of the subject. One aim of the Qabalah is to, by way of its study, achieve illumination.
It is generally considered to have been transmitted orally among the Patriarchs, Prophets, and Sages until it eventually became integral with Jewish religious writings and culture. At about the 10th century BC it was open knowledge and practised by the general population of Israel at that time. Obviously this date conflicts with the generally accepted dates given above. But remember, the above dates refer to when it was written down and formalised. And also remember this refers to the earliest known dates. There is nothing to prevent earlier records that have not been found yet or are lost.
Then, the Qabalah was hidden again and made secret, known only to the cognoscenti, because of repeated foreign conquests. It was not allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Also, because of the social upheavals of that time, it was feared that if it was taken to foreign lands and away from the spiritual leaders it might eventually lead the unsupervised (Jewish) practitioners into wrong practise and error.
As the Qabalah was developed by the Jews, it contains numerous references to Jewish thought and uses classical Jewish sources in order to explain and clarify its teachings. These teachings are held by traditional Qabalists to explain the inner meaning of the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) in addition to explaining the meaning of the Traditional Jewish observances.
A basic Jewish text is the Zohar, and according to that, the study of Torah (the ‘teachings’ of God) consists of four levels of interpretation, which are called Pardes (literally ‘orchard’). These four Pardes are as follows
Peshat (‘simple’): the direct interpretations of meaning.
Remez (‘hint[s]’): the allegoric meanings (through allusion).
Derash (from Heb. darash: ‘inquire’ or ‘seek’): midrashic (Rabbinic) meanings, often with imaginative comparisons with similar words or verses.
Sod (‘secret’ or ‘mystery’): the inner, esoteric (metaphysical) meanings, expressed in Qabalah.
The Qabalah teaches doctrines that are accepted by some Jews but are rejected by others because they are considered to be heretical.
Over the centuries, the influence of the Qabalah on Jewish thought has waxed and waned. Now it has gained an additional following from non orthodox Jews due to modern study and cross denominational spiritual activities. Now the term ‘Qabalah’ has become the main descriptive of Jewish esoteric knowledge and practices.
Clarifying the concepts within the Qabalah is extremely difficult, if not impossible. There are several different schools of thought and each has very different interpretations and understandings. There have been efforts to ‘narrow down’ its scope by excluding certain teachings, but these excluded teachings still crop up as commentaries in the ‘allowed’ scope. It is safe to say that the Qabalah deals with very abstract concepts that can only be understood intuitively.
Basically, the Qabalah teaches that God has two ‘aspects’, God himself and the Revealed Aspect of God. No-one can even begin to know or understand God. But the Revealed Aspect of God is the one that created the universe together with everything in it and is at least, to some degree, accessible to human understanding. These two aspects are complimentary to each other and in some unknowable sense one and the same.
God interacts with the universe through divine emanations (the central metaphor of Ohr ("Light") is used to describe Divine emanations), the structure of which has been characterized in numerous ways:
Sefirot (Divine attributes)
Partzufim (Divine "faces")
Four Worlds of Creation in a Seder hishtalshelus (Descending Chain of realms) Azilut
Asiyah; the Biblical vision by Ezekiel of the Merkabah (Divine angelic "Chariot").
These interpretations were integrated in subsequent Qabalistic systemisation.
God continually sustains the universe through ten emanations, called Sefirot (singular Sephirah). Sephirah means ‘counting’ but early Qabalists included a number of other interpretations including
sappir (sapphire, brilliance, luminary)
The term Sephirah has many complex meanings and relationships within Qabalah.
According to the Qabalah, the human soul has three elements
Nefesh (Present at birth): This is the animal and bodily cravings and is the lowest aspect of the soul
Ruach (Present at birth): This contains the moral virtues and the ability to distinguish between good and evil and is classified as the middle aspect of the soul
Neshamah (Not present at birth but has to be ‘developed’): This could be described as the ‘super’ soul. It allows man the ability to benefit from and enjoy the afterlife. It provides one to have an awareness of God, his existence and presence. Only mankind has this aspect of the soul.
The Jewish alphabet contains no separate characters for the numbers, instead individual letters are used. Over time, Qabalists have come to investigate this aspect, reasoning that there must be ‘messages’ from God found in the relationships between certain texts and their numerical interpretations. That is, individual texts can be, in the Jewish language, interpreted as numbers and vice versa. So a word can correspond to a number and a number can correspond to a word. Various schools of Qabalists and others have produced interpretations of this ‘numerology’.
A serious and sustained criticism of the Qabalah is that, despite the fact it propounds the unity of God, it will lead people away from this basic concept towards dualism. Dualism believes there are two powers in the universe, good and evil and all its variants. Qabalistic cosmology believes the ten Sefirot must not be interpreted as ten different Gods, but rather ten aspects of the one God. So while duality may seem to be all around us, male-female, night-day, good-evil etc, the Qabalah stresses the ultimate unity of God. Remember it is impossible for humanity to ‘know’ God, just the revealed aspect. And it is the ‘revealed aspect’ that makes creation possible.
Having said that, some Qabalistic texts (e.g. the Zohar) appear to confirm dualism in their teachings. These texts ascribe all evil to the Sitra Achra (the other side) which, in effect, means the other side of God. They seem to believe that evil is a necessary part of God which is specifically there to give man free choice. These texts specifically do not say evil is a supernatural force opposed to God, but instead say evil is absolutely necessary in order to give mankind free will.
In short, there are numerous ‘variations and interpretations’ of the Qabalah existing now (far more than can be listed in an article like this) and these have been derived from previous ideas. Modern scholars are of the opinion that all the versions, present and past depend on the ideas and mysticism of the age they were developed. They are not ‘new’ insights as such, but insights derived from study which in turn are necessarily based on existing opinion.
It appears that the Qabalah came to Christian study and application during the Renaissance, when a series of philosophical documents from Greece became available. These documents, mostly from the Greek Neoplatonic school, seemed to agree with some or all aspects of the Jewish Qabalah which Christian scholars and mystics of that time noted, which, in turn, sparked off an interest and a desire to investigate for themselves.
This Renaissance trend was relatively short lived and had ended by about 1750 but by then Qabalah had become interlinked with European occultism, some of which had a religious basis. However, despite this interest, the main thrust of Christian Qabalah died by the 18th century and does not now form a part of mainstream Christian thought. There have been a few attempts to revive it into mainstream Christian thought in recent decades but to no avail.
While mainstream Christianity flirted with and eventually rejected the Qabalah, Western mysticism actively incorporated it into its worldview. So much so it is part of the underlying philosophy of the major occult groups in the Western world. Groups such as the Golden Dawn, various Thelemic orders, mystical societies such as the Builders of the Adytum and the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. In addition the Qabalah is influential to various degrees in the Neopagan, Wiccan and New Age movements. Left Hand Path orders, such as the Typhonian Order also include the Hermetic Qabalah in their worldviews, specifically the Qliphothic Qabalah.
Hermetic Qabalah is, as said, not pure Jewish Qabalah, rather it is part of a fusion of many influences, such as, Jewish Qabalah, Western astrology, Alchemy, pagan religions, especially Egyptian and Greco-Roman (the term Hermetic is derived from the Greco-Roman influence), neoplatonism, gnosticism, John Dee’s and Edward Kelley’s Enochian system of angelic magic, hermeticism, rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, tantra and the symbolism of the tarot. As a consequence, Hermetic Qabalah is a totally syncretic system which shares many concepts with Jewish Qabalah.
One of the main ideas of Hermetic Qabalah is the ‘Divine’, which differs from the mainstream monotheistic religions. In general, the divide between God and man is not so clear cut in the Hermetic Qabalah, which generally teaches that material creation is part of a series of emanations from the godhead.
Before these emanations there are three ‘states’ that are required.
Ain ‘Nothing’ a state of complete nullity
Ain Suph ‘Without Limit, Infinite’
Ain Suph Aur ‘Limitless Light’ caused by a ‘movement of ‘Ain Suph’ and it is from this that the first emanation of creation comes.
There are ten emanations from Ain Suph Aur and these are called the Sephiroth (singular Sephirah). These Sephiroth are different to the Jewish equivalent.
Basically, the first Sephirah creates Kether, and the rest of the Sephiroth are created from Kether, as follows
Daath (not assigned a number as it is considered part of Binah or a hidden sephirah).
The Divine Energy, or Divine Light, continuously flows from the godhead through Kether and hence to manifestation and the Divine Energy is often drawn as a lightning flash on the diagrams of the Seriphotic tree.
In Hermetic Qabalah, each emanation is seen as a nexus of divine energy with a number of ‘attributions’. For example, the Sephirah Hod has the attributions of
The eights of the tarot deck
The planet Mercury
The Egyptian god Thoth
The archangel Michael
The Roman god Mercury
The alchemical element Mercury.
The Qabalist is to meditate on all the attributions in order to derive an understanding of the character of the Sephirah.
The Tarot is also important to Hermetic Qabalah, as it is seen as a key to the Tree Of Life. The major acana (greater mysteries) consisting of twenty-one trumps and the fool are linked to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and to the twenty-two paths of the Tree of Life. The numbers in each suit (ace to ten) correspond to the ten Sephiroth in the four Qabalistic worlds and the sixteen court cards relate to the classical elements in the four worlds.
The Sephiroth describe God and the paths between then describe ways of understanding God.
And as a small aside, The most common arrangement, in Hermetic Qabalah, of the Sephiroth and paths on the Tree of Life is the ‘Kircher Tree’. This was developed by Athanasius Kircher in 1652, which itself was based on an earlier version (1625) by Philippe d'Aquin.
The epitome of Hermetic Qabalah was, to all intents and purposes, the 19th century organisation ‘The Golden Dawn’. While the Qabalistic principles such as the Sephiroth had been integrated with the Greek and Egyptian deities for centuries, The Golden Dawn focussed on this ‘fusing’ and added other systems such as the Enochian system of angelic magic of John Dee and certain Eastern (particularly Hindu and Buddhist) concepts.
This does not refer to England the country but to English the language. The English Qabalah links the letters of the English language to specific numbers via various formulae. Unlike the Jewish letter/number identity, the English version is entirely dependant on the specific formula used to derive the relationships between the numbers and the letters.
As you might expect, there are various interpretations of this concept. According to Jake Stratton-Kent, the English Qabalah is not simply a simple numerological formula but is specifically a relationship between holy texts and the mathematical laws at work within them, specifically gematria.
It may be beneficial to note here that gematria is a system where letters are related to numbers where the numerical equivalent of a word is summed together in order to find a ‘key’ of that particular word.
The first known system of the English Qabalah was developed by Michael Stifel in 1532. He also proposed a system known as the trigonal alphabet utilizing triangular numbers. Various variations appeared in 1683 which are collectively known as the 1683 alphabet. It is interesting to note that Leo Tolstoy used the 1683 alphabet in War and Peace to identify Napoleon with the number of the beast.
In more recent times, new systems have been developed by various people
Michael Bertiaux (1989) – developed Angelic Gematria
David Rankine (2004) – developed Prime Qabalah, based on prime numbers
Samuel K Vincent – proposed a new system based on extending previous systems together with a concordance with Thelemic texts.
William Eisen – described a system related to the Spiritualist Agasha Temple of Wisdom
The English Qabalah was extended further by Alister Crowley in 1907 in his book Liber Trigrammaton. It links the trigrams from the Book of the Mutations of the Tau with the twenty six letters of the English language.
Staying with Alister Crowley, it should be noted that three years before Liber Trigrammaton, (that is in 1904), his Book of the Law (Liber AL vel legis) contained the text at verse 2:55, “"Thou shalt obtain the order & value of the English Alphabet; thou shalt find new symbols to attribute them unto". Obviously Crowley was trying to fulfil his own injunction in Liber Trigrammaton.
In 1974, Carol Smith discovered and published the ALW Cipher, which she called the English Qabalah (James Lees states he discovered it independently in 1976). This was later referred to as the New Aeon English Qabalah.
The Difference between the Traditional Jewish and the Hermetic Qabalah
It might be useful to summarise the difference between the two systems here. Remember, the Jewish Qabalah is the original by thousands of years. The Hermetic Qabalah took the original Jewish Qabalah and used it as an interpretative tool to apply to its own philosophy.
The Jewish Qabalah is used to try and understand God. God is by definition un-understandable but there is a way to partially understand God by the way God ‘manufactures’ the material world. The ‘knowable’ God comprises of ten ‘essences’ called the ten Sefirot. Understand the Sefirot and you will start to understand God.
The Hermetic Qabalah has a differing worldview. The basic idea is that there is a universal thread of truth behind all the major religions and the main spiritual teachings. It attempts to strip away every superfluous section of each one and link the remainder together to form a ‘unified’ spiritual practise.
Here the ten Sephirot are what can be called the magickal or the astral world. As a consequence there are ten grades of magickal understanding (or initiation), the seven planets of the traditional astrology plus the numerology of the numbers one to ten. The ten Sephirot are drawn out in the ‘Tree of Life’, and from this diagram, it is seen that there are twenty-two paths which link the ten Sephirot. These twenty-two paths are linked with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the twenty-two major arcana of the Tarot. So, each Sephirah and each path correspond to a specific set of meanings, thirty-two in total. By proper application it becomes possible to invoke any specified essence. In order to undertake this, numerous tables of correspondences have been drawn up and studied. These include precise colour, animal, perfume, stone, being etc.